While rambling through some storage boxes in the basement one day, I came across a roll of film. The film was among past photos and other odds and ends, and I recognized that most of the stuff was from back in the 1990s.
“I wonder what could be on this,” I asked myself aloud, though there was no one around.
I rolled the film around in my hand. The yellow sticker on the backside of the film case had been worn down to make it unreadable. I had a sudden sense of profound curiosity to find out what was in that roll of film.
How to get this developed? I asked myself. Obvious. Google it, right? I often enjoy having a conversation with myself; it somehow reaffirms whatever I am thinking at the moment.
“How to develop old Kodak film,” I typed into Google. Plenty of ads popped up, but as I scrolled down the straightforward answer came up; to take the film to a CVS pharmacy, and they will send it off for you. That was great. I couldn’t believe they still did that. It brought back memories from the 80s and 90s whenever you had to take your film into the pharmacy, put it in an envelope, fill it out, turn it in, take the tag, wait several days, or pay an extra fee for quicker delivery. Unless you were a serious photographer that kept notes on your pictures, which I never was, there was always that sense of excitement to get them back and see what pictures you had taken.
I took my discovered film down to the nearest store and dropped it off. They told me it would take approximately a week to get back and would send a text notification once it was finished. About a week later, I received the message and went to pick the pictures up. I was excited to open the photo envelope but waited until I got home.
Once home, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and went to the couch with my present. I sat my beer on the coffee table and carefully cut the envelope flap open with my knife. I pulled the stack of photos from the envelope, and the negatives fell out with them. The first picture was nothing but a brown blur. There was no image whatsoever. “Damn!” followed by more damn its, and god damn its as I flipped through the pictures, getting the same result, just brown blur. I must have had the lens cover closed or something, I thought. As I approached the end of the 24 pictures, one came out crystal clear.
The photo was of a man in a green military uniform from the back. The picture was taken from behind the windshield of a large truck. The man was walking toward what looked like a service station. The area around was nothing but dust and sand. In a flash, the memory came back to me.
“Oh, shit! I took this photo in Saudi Arabia just before the war.”
The picture was taken in Saudi Arabia, and the war was the first Gulf War with Iraq in Kuwait in late 1990 and early 1991. I had taken the picture while riding as a guard for a truck convoy. The convoy consisted of three semi-trucks whose drivers were all Arabs, I believe Saudis but not for a certain sense I spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English.
I had arrived in country during the last part of November from Hawaii, which was to be my main duty station. My unit was already in Saudi Arabia and had been since August, some of the first US troop deployments right after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The unit I had been assigned to, Third Battalion Third Marines had just finished a pump, or a deployment, of six months in Okinawa and Southeast Asia.
Before getting to my unit, which was assembled in some remote desert camp, I would be attached to a forming unit at the main camp outside of Riyadh. I and other new recruits along with other rotating veterans sat around this camp as we awaited transportation or orders to our perspective units. During this time we did odd end work parties, this being the Marine Corps way of keeping you busy, and sat around playing cards. Parts of the camp were being broken down and put on trucks to be moved forward to establish a new base camp closer to the Kuwaiti border.
I got selected, along with a few others, to ride as an escort/guard for a convoy that would be taking equipment and materials north. Each Marine would be a single guard for each convoy. The morning that I was to join the convoy, I reported to HQ to receive my instructions. I was told that I would ride in the lead truck as just a security measure to make sure that the truck drivers did not take their loads off somewhere to sell the goods onto the black market, something I guess they were known to do. I was to keep my combat gear on, helmet, flack, and deuce gear (magazine pouches and webbing) and given enough ammunition for several magazines for my M16. I was also instructed that it was an easy assignment that I didn’t need any Arabic, that the drivers knew where they were going and all I had to do was just enjoy the ride. There was no radio given and of course, there were no cell phones at that time so I was on my own if something were to happen but I was ensured that there were plenty of military convoys and personnel traveling the road as other units were moving camps and people also.
After leaving the CP (Command Post or Headquarters) I walked over to where the trucks were located toward the entrance of the base. They had already been loaded the previous night and I found my three drivers alongside the trucks. They wore the traditional Arab garb of a long tunic or Abaya as they are called in Arabic, along with sandals. They were chatting among themselves when they saw me coming. They gave some hand gestures such as greetings and said hello. I think we shook hands because I remember that it was very important only to use the right hand. I am left-handed and using the left hand other than for the dirty business in the bathroom is considered insulting in Arab culture.
They seemed very cordial and polite but in a hurry, so after some nods and hand gesturing, I gathered they were ready to roll. There was some broken English like hello and ok, ok, but beyond that not much conversation. I headed for the lead truck and jumped up into the passenger side.
The inside of Arab trucks is quite fanciful itself. There are all these trappings like the dangling fuzz balls all around the window and the calligraphy or Arabic designs that are all over the cab along with pictures of perhaps family and friends or imams (Muslim priests). The cabs are very decorated. My driver started the truck going and we headed out along the dusty road heading for a main paved road. I never received a map or directions or anything like that, I was told the name of the area that we were heading for, which I can no longer remember now, but I was assured that the drivers knew the route and had no worries.
We must have driven for some miles to get to the intersection of the highway the time was uneventful and lost to my memory. What does stick in my head is that once we got to the interstate my driver stopped and looked over at me and started saying something in Arabic. I just looked at him and nodded having no idea what he was saying, maybe telling me how amazing the highway was or something, but then he began hand gesturing toward the road and then the sign, all in Arabic. It was then that I understood that he was asking me which way.
“Which way?” I asked looking at him in surprise “How the hell should I know? I was told that you guys knew the way. Holy shit.”
The guy started barking in Arabic at a very rapid pace. I could tell that he understood that I didn’t know either what he was saying or which way to go. He opened his door and jumped out of the truck. I soon saw him and his companion drives just below and outside my door and they were raising a ruckus.
It was actually quite funny, they were flapping their arms just jabbering Arabic faster than anything I ever heard, every once in a while one would point his hand towards me and they would all be back at it again. They had a map with them, so I decided to get out and at least take a look. Maybe I could see something that I recognized and point to it.
I got down in the midst of them and they showed me their map that looked like a child’s doodle of Neverland as everything was also in Arabic, a very beautiful looking written language I may say but looks like some bizarre Doctor signature strewn out across the page. I had no idea how to even begin to interpret it. They would look at me and I could tell were asking me again which way. I just shrugged and again they all went into a tizzy.
“What the fuck do I do now?” I asked myself. I thought we could turn around and go all the way back to base camp, but that would make me look like a fool and someone would probably write my ass up for that and I was supposed to have this trip down by tomorrow. I knew it was going to take some six hours of driving then I was to catch a military ride back from where we dropped the load.
I looked at the highway and a vehicle would come every now and then. I knew the name of the place so I figured that I would just halt a vehicle and say the name to see if the driver knew of it. The first vehicle just drove past without even slowing down, just watching me wave at them. Then a couple of others did the same.
“Fuck this,” I unslung my rifle, put it to my shoulder, and the next vehicle that came toward me, I raised my rifle and sighted in straight at them. That vehicle stopped.
I was quite lucky as out of this tan truck, maybe a small Toyota I think, a guy in British fatigues and beret jumps out and says, “Say there chap, what’s this all about then?”
I explain to the guy my situation and tell him where I am heading and he was such the British gentry, he never batted an eye or got angry he just continued, “Well just continue straight up the highway here the way I’m headed, that’s north,” he pointed down the highway “and you will see signs for…” here again can’t recall the names but he said they would be in English as well and that I would notice lots of military activity with vehicles and such.
He finished with “Well good luck to ya, and if you hit a bunch of barricades with a bunch of armed Iraqis, that’d be Kuwait, and ya gone to far.” He laughs, hops back into his truck, and off he goes. I turned back towards my drivers who are now focused on what the hell I was doing out in the middle of the highway. I point up the highway and shout, “We go that way!” They give a cheer and we all get back into our respective trucks.
Most of the ride was non-eventful, just sitting around in the cab and listening to crazy Arabian music since me and the driver couldn’t communicate with each other although we tried. I had found out later that the truck drivers were known for getting things on the black market from sailors off of supply ships while making deliveries to port towns. My driver started laughing once and pulled down his sun visor which exposed a photo of some topless blond with very large breasts.
“Hahaha! You like?” he would laugh then close the visor, having pornographic photos in Saudi Arabia can land you into trouble. He also knew the name Jack Daniels and whiskey. “Ahhh, Jack Daniels! Whiskey! Hahaha, you like?” then he would just proceed to laugh though he never produced any whiskey. Maybe he was out at the time.
The drivers loved playing this game of passing each other with all their lights flashing and they would pass each other in every which way possible even going off into the desert, though sometimes the road was even covered by sand drifts like drifting snow does in the northern plains. Once one of the trucks passing off into the desert managed to get himself stuck. We spent a good hour getting it out and that was not the only time, it was like fun for them to go speeding off into the sand for some reason. Sure it’s a blast until you're stuck.
One thing I really enjoyed is we stopped for a break one time. They would stop for prayers but that was just long enough for them to throw down a carpet towards Mecca and do the prayers, but the break was at dark and they sat out a big carpet and opened the wheel cabinets under the trailers of the truck. They had this whole gas stove system with pots and everything under there. They brewed up the most awesome tea I have ever had in my life and we sat around cross-legged on the carpet drinking the tea for about 20 minutes. As they chatted I looked up into the night sky and was astounded. You will never believe the stars you can see out in the depths of the Arabian desert where there is no light pollution, it is mind-blowing.
Well, my time is almost up. About out of words, but oh I must mention the picture from which I started this story. We had pulled into a service station and it was similar to what you would find in the States in 1990, it had pumps and a store, and a couple of out buildings.
I had to wiz something fierce so I proceeded inside of course in combat gear, packing an M16, and that’s something I recommend trying is going around in a foreign country packing war gear and weaponry, it’s a neat experience. At any rate, everybody knew what was up so they weren’t freaked out or anything but it took a few gestures and silent acting to get them to understand I was looking for the restroom or head as we call it in the Marines. The attendant pointed to a building outside and told me something, so I headed that way.
I went into this small building and on the wall to my left was this long silver metal trough on the wall just below waist level along with sinks on the other wall. There was another open door going into the back of the small building. I immediately thought of trough pissers from back in the States like at bars. I proceed to go over to the trough, which has running water in it, and undo my fatigue buttons, and am just about ready to let loose when a man comes out of the door from the back and starts going irate.
He’s yelling and flinging his arms in the air and of course, I button back up and square up with this guy thinking maybe he’s not happy with Americans. Soon a couple more fellas enter the bathroom from outside. The one screaming at me starts talking to them and they are all looking at me then one of them kind of looks at me in understanding and comes over to me and hand gestures toward the back door and says “Please”.
I head through the back door and there is a small hall with stalls on each side about the size of small showers. I look in one and all I see is a hole in the floor with jugs of water sitting around in the stall. The man that guided me in was at the door and is looking at me waving, “Yes, Yes. Go, go.” I figure out the hole is the bathroom and the water, well that’s what for cleaning the left hand. On my way out I notice a man at the trough and he is washing his feet in the trough. I learn that is a Saudi custom to wash the feet upon entering or leaving such places.
I had many more adventures during that war but here is one of them, and I made it all back in one piece. Just remember, I was an 18-year-old kid when I was doing this, now at 50, so it's been a long time. My time and words are up for now and I hope you enjoyed the story and maybe learned a little something. I know I did being warped into a whole new culture that was worlds different from mine, but also many similarities. It was these experiences that would later lead me to the study of anthropology.